What are Alterative Herbs?
Alterative herbs constitute a broad yet slightly difficult-to-define category of important herbs. These are herbs that help the body detoxify blood and lymph, improve metabolic processes and nutrient assimilation, and harmonize physiological functions. From a 19th-century herbal medicine perspective, these were seen as purifiers of “bad blood.” In other words, they help the body eliminate that which is not useful and retain and assimilate that which is.
Many of the alterative herbs are mild to strong laxatives or diuretics. Several support the role of the liver and kidneys in flushing toxins. Some of their shared benefits include treating the skin (often by supporting the detoxification functions of the liver), improving circulation of blood and lymph, and alleviating inflammation and allergic reactions. A handful of familiar herbs are known as potent alteratives, such as burdock, dandelion, and nettle. A much larger group of herbs have secondary alterative functions.
To help understand what this category of herbs is all about, and to shine some light on a few superstar herbs, let’s take a closer look at the alterative qualities of some herbs.
Burdock is related to the sunflower. This herb is known as a blood purifier. It helps clear stagnation in various physiological systems including the circulatory, lymphatic, respiratory, and urinary. It supports the body in eliminating fluid waste and toxins, especially from the kidneys, liver and gallbladder, in part by promoting sweating.
Burdock benefits mucous membranes and the nervous system. It is used to help stabilize blood sugar and support the detoxification function of the liver. Burdock is commonly used as a support for the liver and to help nourish the skin and treat chronic skin conditions including eczema and dandruff.
The root is the part of the plant most commonly used medicinally, which can be taken as a tea or tincture. The seeds can also be eaten. Use with caution during pregnancy.
This familiar weed has been used medicinally for centuries. It has a strong diuretic function, can be used as a laxative, and improves appetite and digestion. It helps the body eliminate fluids without flushing essential potassium. It supports the liver and kidneys in clearing toxins from the blood. This herb is useful for any issues related to inflammation or stagnation associated with the liver or gallbladder, including jaundice. It also supports skin and breast health.
The whole plant can be consumed as medicine or food, providing a good source of potassium, folic acid, iron, and vitamin B-12. It can be taken as a tea, tablet, or tincture, or eaten as a vegetable. Dandelion should be avoided by patients with gallstones and those taking diuretics and medications that alter blood-sugar levels. It can interfere with the optimal function of certain antibiotics, thus should only be consumed under the guidance of a healthcare practitioner during antibiotic treatment. Dandelion should be avoided by those with allergies to chamomile, yarrow, and other related species.
Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia OR Echinacea purpurea)
This pretty flower is commonly known as an immunity booster, but it also helps the body heal wounds, fight infection, and calm inflammation. Herbalists appreciate its supportive role for the lymphatic system. It is great for treating skin and nail issues and research has shown it to be effective in fighting cancer. It is helpful in treating various types of infections including parasites, Lyme disease, and ear infections. To support immunity, echinacea is often taken in combination with Goldenseal, another alterative (see below).
Use with caution if pregnant, when taking certain medications, and if allergic to ragweed and related species.
Effective in treating skin infections and inflamed mucus membranes. This herb treats Meniere’s Disease by circulating lymph away from the inner ear (best accompanied by Scutellaria for this purpose). It is also useful in treating periodontal disease.
Many of Goldenseal’s medicinal benefits are attributable to the active constituent berberine, which is known to prevent infections, boost immunity, and reduce inflammation. Berberine has even been shown to fight off some antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Berberine is also found in Barberry, Coptis, and Oregon grape root. Berberine should not be consumed by pregnant women, nursing mothers, or infants.
Goldenseal root is the part of the plant used medicinally. It can be taken as a capsule, tablet, powder, ointment, tincture, or applied as a compress. This herb may interfere with the function of anticoagulant medications and certain antibiotics. It should not be consumed during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. It can lower blood sugar and may irritate the stomach.
Paradoxically, the leaf of this stinging plant has anti-inflammatory properties and is especially effective in treating the skin, scalp and hair. It is a diuretic, which helps the body eliminate uric acid and alleviate urinary tract infections. It also helps the body clear excess fluids in cases of edema and joint swelling. This herb is particularly useful for issues of musculoskeletal and joint pain, including arthritis and gout, as well as benign prostatic hypertrophy. It boosts milk production in nursing mothers. The root helps diminishes allergic reactions, including hives. Nettle is even used to treat the autoimmune disease Lupus.
The leaves and roots are used medicinally and need to be cooked before consumption. They can be taken as a tea, capsule, or juice. Use with caution if taking medications for high blood pressure, diabetes, inflammation, or any sedatives.
Helpful in treating a wide variety of skin issues, including acne and eczema. Iris benefits the skin by supporting the detoxification function of the liver. It is a laxative and is thought to be helpful for weight loss. It alleviates fluid retention and bloating. Iris stimulates the functions of the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas and promotes the production of bile. It is effective in preventing vomiting and alleviating constipation, especially constipation associated with problems of the liver. It reduces overall inflammation in the body.
The root is the part of the plant used medicinally. It can be taken as a decoction or a tincture. Caution when taking other medications including Warfarin, Lanoxin and laxatives.
The majority of these herbs have diuretic or laxative effects and influence the function of the liver and kidneys, characteristics that should be taken into consideration before consumption. Some of these herbs can alter the function of other medications in the body, including antibiotics and liver medications. They can affect blood sugar, blood pressure, and electrolyte levels. Appropriate medical guidance is encouraged when taking these herbs, especially if you have any concerns. As always, start with a small sample dose when taking an herb for the first time.
Balch, Phyllis A. Prescription for Herbal Healing. New York: Avery, 2002.